(Note: This story first ran in June 2016.)
By Sasha Nyary
When Delores Ojunga-Andrew was 17 years old and living in Chicago, she took an aptitude test. Her high school guidance counselor told her excitedly, “You knocked it out of the ballpark on the manipulatives section!” Then she added, “You should work in a factory.”
Ojunga-Andrew was both offended and inspired. She decided to go to nursing school instead.
She graduated as a registered nurse from a three-year program, which was the standard training at the time. But on the day of the graduation ceremony, the director of the nursing program announced that the American Nurses Association had decided that in the future, students must earn a bachelor’s degree to be considered a professional nurse.
Inspired again, Ojunga-Andrew decided she would start her career but also return to school. She took classes right away, in 1967, but it would take nearly 50 years for her to come within reach of her bachelor’s degree.
Now, Ojunga-Andrew ’18, is just a few credits shy of achieving the goal she’s longed for and worked toward since she was a teenager. At 72, she is the oldest student on the campus of Mount Holyoke College.
“I wanted to make sure that I was recognized as a professional nurse, as someone who could stand toe-to-toe academically and professionally,” she said. “I had to get the credentials to go with it.”
Ojunga-Andrew, an Africana studies major, is a Frances Perkins Scholar and part of a program at Mount Holyoke for students of nontraditional age who have experienced an interruption in their education.
When her application was being considered, the admission committee was particularly interested in Ojunga-Andrew because of her lifelong commitment to learning and education, said Carolyn Dietel, the director of the Frances Perkins Program.
“She had been pursuing educational opportunities whenever she could,” Dietel said. “She was always able to squeeze in a class between working and raising a family. The dean of admission at the time said, ‘With her life experience, her passion, and her perspective, it sounds like she will really bring something special to our classrooms.’ ”
Balancing work with school
Nursing gave Ojunga-Andrew flexible hours so she could take classes and, after she married, be with her children. In her 42-year career, she won outstanding commendations for her nursing, working in intensive coronary care, intensive surgical care, the emergency room, psychiatry, and as the charge nurse on the evening shift.
“I wanted high-tech, high-drama nursing,” she said. “I wanted to save lives.”
In 1988 Ojunga-Andrew and her family moved from Chicago to Springfield, Massachusetts. She raised her three small children and worked at Baystate Medical Center and Hartford Hospital. She took classes when she could, and she decided her BA would be in something other than nursing, but she wasn’t sure just what. Then she learned she could go to Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) for free when she turned 65. So she enrolled after she retired in 2009.
“I never forgot my vision,” she said. “I was going to get that degree. And I had all As.”
Ojunga-Andrew graduated with a 4.0 from STCC in May 2013. With her associate’s degree in general studies, she was eligible to apply for transfer into the Frances Perkins Program, which she had learned about many years earlier.
Her Mount Holyoke experience
Ojunga-Andrew had spent her life thinking scientifically about anatomy and physiology, and the needs and symptoms of patients. At Mount Holyoke, she now takes three classes a semester in areas such as anthropology, psychology, and religion. The transition had its challenges, including learning to use a computer. She found help at the SAW (Speaking, Arguing, and Writing) Center in organizing and strategizing her assignments.
“I was asked to rewrite my first paper, and an older person who had gone to college as an adult helped me,” she said. “She knew what I was going through.”
“I really appreciated her passion for social justice and her willingness, as a self-identified Christian, to work with Buddhist materials to see what could she learn from Buddhist feminists that would be helpful in her own community for addressing issues of justice,” Mrozik said.
Her children, now in their thirties, are supportive of her, Ojunga-Andrew said, noting that all three of them are college graduates.
“My daughter said, ‘Mommy, you’re living the life!’ ” she said.
An artist in her spare time who paints and crochets, she feels deeply grateful for the opportunity to be at Mount Holyoke, Ojunga-Andrew said. She plans to write after she completes her degree, and to remain involved with her church, St John’s Congregational Church in Springfield.
“I’m going to do my best, get this degree and make good use of it,” she said. “You’ve got to reach back and help somebody else. I have a feeling people will say, ‘If she can go to school and read all those books, I know I can.’ ”
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